The quickest way I know to make significant profits with commercial real estate is to do deals with substantial upside potential.
But first let's define “upside”. I'm not talking about a paper increase in value due to scheduled rental increases, or replacing “below-market” leases, as many for-sale brochures define the term.
My definition of upside is to unlock hidden potential in a property that creates triple digit percentage gains on investment, provides positive cash flow along the way, and avoids major risks of loss. The upside may come from expansion, redevelopment, or by changing the market position of the property with major improvements.
How do you do that?
It boils down to three critical factors: the local market conditions; good structural bones; and a willing seller. When all three are present the deal is there for the taking, but only if the investor can design and implement the proper structure. The focus of this discussion will be in creating a structure to create and capture upside.
Market Is King
First and foremost is the local market. Regardless of property type, the first rule of real estate investing is we do not make markets-we serve them. A poor market will stop any plan dead in its tracks, so the first priority for any strategy is make sure the area demographics of population, income and employment are in a positive trend. Basic demographic research includes statistics for a three- to five-year period to show the trends. One year's data is useless. To say a market had a 2% population growth in the previous year means nothing. But if the current 2% increase is up from 5% loss over the last five years indicates the market is turning and worthy of further investigation. With that knowledge we can be confident in seeking out the worst property we can find in a good location, because that's where we'll make the most money.
What we're looking for is the things that can't be changed being sound. We look beyond the cosmetics to the structural elements, such as foundations and basic construction of the buildings, the systems, and the grounds. If the structural elements are failing, then the property may not be suitable for turnaround without expending more funds than can be recovered. Aesthetics can be fixed.
Unless you are an expert in building systems, construction and environmental issues it is advisable to hire experts to inspect the relevant elements of the property. The cost is negligible when compared to the cost of fixing a mistake, or worse, not being able to fix it. Location is something else that can't be changed. Don't fall for the old sales line of “priced below replacement cost”. My first question is always “If given the chance to replace it, would I?” Understand the local market and how it works. A great deal in a bad location is not a deal it's a problem looking for an owner.
Seller Motivation and Deal Structure
The final question is to assess the seller's willingness to help us solve his problem. There are a number of ways to accomplish that, and it takes some digging to get into the seller's mind and discover his true motivations. Most commonly the property has existing debt. The seller may offer to finance part of the purchase price as a second mortgage. But the property can rarely support a new loan, and that requires the buyer to fund improvements from cash out-of-pocket. That's hardly an attractive proposition, as the cash flow is usually not sufficient to carry the additional debt of the seller's note and provide a return on the investor's capital.
Typically the alternative is for the seller to greatly reduce the price, even below the amount of current debt, or accept a subordinated note with no payments. With those options many sellers will opt to keep the property rather than take the risk for no money. The deal falls apart for lack of an alternative structure. The ideal structure would allow the investor to obtain new financing that includes the funds needed for improvements, the seller to realize some of the upside in return for staying in the deal, and designed so the property produces a positive cash flow. Can that be done? Yes it can, as the following example from my files demonstrates.
The deal was a 54-Unit apartment complex, well-located in a great college-town market. The owner had let the property decline to the point that the performance had suffered tremendously. The expenses were high and the income unstable due to the poor condition of the property. The buildings needed new roofs, windows, kitchens, paving, heat pumps and new appliances. The existing NOI (net operating income) was about $145,000. The owner had existing debt of $950,000. The improvements were estimated to cost $350,000. The as-is appraised value (and the asking price) was $1,200,000, reflecting an as-is 12% cap rate. The projected value after the improvements was estimated to be $1,750,000, using the same NOI but a lower cap rate (8%) to reflect the completion of the capital improvements.
We came up with the following deal structure: In lieu of down payment, the seller would get 20% equity-only (not profits) interest in a new LLC that would acquire the property. The LLC would obtain a bridge loan for $1,300,000 to pay off existing mortgage and fund the repairs.
Our investment plan was to complete the improvements over a six-month time frame, and then raise the rents to market levels. In the first year we planned to complete the improvements and raise the rents for upcoming leasing season. No occupancy increases were projected, but the combination of higher rents and lower expenses were projected to significantly increase the NOI and cash flow. In the next two years it was expected that the occupancy would also rise to an average 97%, excluding collection and vacancy loss, further increasing NOI and cash flow. In the third year the LLC would refinance the property based on the increased income, and use the proceeds to pay off the seller's LLC interest. At that point we would own 100% of the LLC interests and could either hold the property or sell at will.
The improvements were completed and the rents were raised $50-$75 per unit in the 1st year. Annual increases of $20 per unit were implemented in following two years. The occupancy increased from 90% to 98%, raising the NOI to almost $190,000, and the cash flow to $80,000. Now it was time to turn on the money pump. The property was refinanced with a $1,500,000 loan based on the higher value. We used $200,000 of the proceeds to pay off the seller's interest and the LLC kept about $50,000. The loan was at a lower rate and longer amortization, so the cash flow actually increased to about $90,000. We held the property for two more years, and then sold it at a 7.6% cap rate on the next year's projected net operating income of $186,200, yielding a price of $2,450,000.
Over the five year hold period the investment produced:
3 years cash flow @ avg. $80,000 = $240,000
2 years cash flow @ avg. $90,000 = $180,000
Refinance proceeds- $250,000
Equity at sale- $1,050,000
Total cash and equity $1,670,000
Less seller's interest -$200,000
Total Gain-equity and cash $1,470,000
If you were paying close attention, you realize now that the deal was done with no money out-of-pocket from the buyer, but with none of the risks of over-leverage. This is a real deal. The sale was completed in April 2005 as a 1031 exchange. We bought a $3,000,000 office building with $1,000,000 equity, which also had upside potential, and from which we extracted $300,000 of tax-free cash equity after closing. We are now (2007) ready to exchange the office building for a $5,000,000 retail property from which we will extract over $1,000,000 of the equity in tax-free cash. This was an out-of-the-box solution that solved all the problems, produced significant upside, and created a money pump that keeps on going. This is how to build wealth in commercial real estate.